The Passion of the Christ, a movie recently released on the last twelve hours of the life of Jesus Christ as portrayed by director Mel Gibson, has been the discussion of many in the world and also in the Lord’s Body itself. Many claims have been made about it, ranging from charges of anti-Semitism to the proclamation by some Evangelicals that the movie is the “greatest witnessing tool of the 21st century.” I have seen this movie and will make some comments on it for the benefit of those in the church and those in the world who may have questions about it.
It is always best to begin such things by commenting on the strengths of the movie. The physical suffering of Jesus is well made in the movie; the agony of the whippings and scourgings, the pain of walking from Jerusalem to Golgotha, the pain of being nailed to the cross and lifted up– the imagery is evocative and extremely grotesque. Blood is everywhere, and the flesh of the character playing Jesus is heavily marred and abused. The movie overall does well at staying with the message of the Scriptures, although it must be stated that Gibson has added many conversations, encounters, and events that are not specifically stated in the Gospel narratives.
In regards to the claims of anti-Semitism that have been famously spoken of for many months now (in fact, some of these comments prompted me to write an article in September of 2003, What Makes a Church a “Responsible Church?”), I will simply say that I believe that Gibson’s portrayal of the Jews is accurate. In the first century CE, one hundred years after Pompey established Roman rule in Judea and only forty years before the political situation of Judea boiled over into open revolt against Rome, a man like Jesus would cause great consternation to both the Jewish and Roman authorities; John himself speaks of the concern of the former in John 11:48:
“If we let him thus alone, all men will believe on him: and the Romans will come and take away both our place and our nation.”
Now, a 21st century perspective of a Jew looking back after the events of the past two thousand years might find the portrayal anti-Semitic, but it must be remembered that the movie is portraying a different time with a completely different perspective: the Jews had not yet lost the Temple, their land, and a large portion of their numbers to persecution. The only fault that can be found in this regard is Gibson’s sympathetic portrayal of Pontius Pilate; we know from history that this man was exceedingly brutal and was even condemned by Tiberius Caesar for his cruelty to the Jews; Gibson’s Pilate is a man who is internally torn and extremely emphathetic to Jesus.
Having said these positive things about the movie, we must now highlight many of the inaccuracies of the movie in regards to the message of the Scriptures. We do this not out of a desire to criticize but so that brethren will know what to watch out for and for others to see the difference between some of Gibson’s inaccurate portrayals and contradictions of the text.
Let us first discuss the contradictions and inaccuracies that stem from Mel Gibson’s theological perspective. It must be said first that Gibson is an “old Catholic,” one of a sect that adheres to the beliefs of Roman Catholicism but believes that the reforms made in Vatican II in the middle part of the twentieth century are false and that the majority of that church has apostasized from what they deem to be the “truth.” As is not surprising, many of Gibson’s specific biases regarding Catholicism come out in the movie:
- The use of Latin. The Jewish characters in the movie speak in Aramaic; the Roman characters in the movie speak in Latin (generally; when Romans speak to Jews they tend to use Aramaic and the character playing Jesus speaks to Pilate in Latin). While Latin was certainly a language used at the time and we do see in John 19:20 that the inscription above Jesus’ head was written in Aramaic, Greek, and Latin, the eastern Mediterranean world of the first century CE did not speak in Latin but in Greek. This is why the New Testament is written in Greek originally and not Latin; perhaps some of the Roman soldiers from western areas would have known Latin, but even in administration in the east the language was Greek. Not only was Latin not spoken much in the eastern Mediterranean world, it is evident in Gibson’s movie that he has used the “church Latin,” the Latin spoken in the western churches and in the Roman Catholic Church until only recently (this is obvious because the letter “c” is not pronounced as a “k,” as it would have been in the first century CE, but as a “ch,” which only is used in later times). The use of Latin over Greek — and ecclesiastical Latin at that– demonstrates Gibson’s Catholic bias.
- The presence of Mary. We do know that Mary, the mother of Jesus, was present at His crucifixion per John 19:25:
These things therefore the soldiers did. But there were standing by the cross of Jesus his mother, and his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene.
We are not told about Mary’s involvement in the time before this; Gibson, however, has given us a very liberal dose of her. While we read nothing of her in the Gospels save at the cross, she is the second most present character in Gibson’s movie behind Jesus Himself. While this alone perhaps could be chalked up to artistic license, the fact that the character portraying Jesus prays to the Father during the walk from Jerusalem to Golgotha and says that, “I am the Son of Your handmaid,” and the fact that the character playing the disciple John calls Mary “mother” on many occasions before Jesus gives him this commission at His crucifixion demonstrates amply that Gibson has read his Roman Catholic beliefs about the perpetual Virgin Mary into the account of Jesus’ death and has given Mary a role far greater than that given to her by the Gospel writers.
- The Stations of the Cross. The concept of the stations of the cross is very significant in Roman Catholic theology; most every church has some sign or icon representing each of the stations of the cross. The “stations of the cross” are 14 “stations” that each represent an event involving Jesus before His death, beginning with His condemnation at the hands of the Jews and Pilate and ending at His internment; it was originally the way that pilgrims trod in the Holy Land, but the Roman Catholics adapted it and created a replica of this walk in their churches to help them relive (supposedly) the various events that occurred in Jesus’ last moments. We see no such path in the Bible, nor the command to have such “stations of the cross.” Some of these “stations” contain concepts not found in the Biblical text, and, as it can be expected, Mel Gibson did add them to his movie. They are:
- Jesus falling three times because of the burden of the cross.
- The meeting of Jesus with His mother.
- A woman, named Veronica, who wipes the face of Jesus.
The other “stations” at least have Biblical precedent; the inclusion of all such things, however, is another noticeable Roman Catholic influence upon the movie.
Let us now look at some other inaccuracies and criticisms of the movie:
- Mary Magdalene. Mary Magdalene is present (along with the disciple John) with Mary the mother of Jesus throughout the movie. Her characterization is fairly accurate until we reach a scene with many disputable events. As she and Mary the mother of Jesus get down on their knees and wipe up the blood of Jesus after His scourging (a scene for which we have no evidence anyway), she has a flashback to a previous scene. We see the character of Jesus sitting on the ground writing in the sand and then Jewish men and elders in front of Him throwing down stones and walking away. As this occurs we see the same woman who is having the flashback– Mary Magdalene– crawl over to the character of Jesus and kiss His feet. The connection cannot be denied; Mel Gibson has cast Mary Magdalene as the woman caught in the act of adultery as described in John 8:1-11. There is absolutely no evidence from the Scriptures about Mary Magdalene as being this adulterous woman (or, for that matter, as a prostitute, which is how she is generally portrayed) or any such thing.
- The role of Pilate’s wife. In Matthew 27:19 we read the following:
And while he was sitting on the judgment-seat, his wife sent unto him, saying, “Have thou nothing to do with that righteous man; for I have suffered many things this day in a dream because of him.”
Here we see Pilate’s wife speaking to Pilate regarding Jesus and her advice to have nothing to do with Him. Gibson takes this one episode and for whatever reason greatly increases her role. We see Pilate’s wife standing in the peristyle while the Jews ask for Jesus’ condemnation; we even see Pilate’s wife coming down to where Jesus was scourged and giving cloths to Mary the mother of Jesus and Mary Magdalene who use them to wipe up the blood (see above). This is entirely fanciful and is one example out of many where Gibson has taken signifcant liberties with the Gospel accounts.
- Satan. We read the following regarding Satan after his temptation of Jesus in Luke 4:13:
And when the devil had completed every temptation, he departed from him for a season.
We do not hear of any specific times when Satan returns to tempt Jesus, and we certainly will not deny the strong possibility that Satan in some way did tempt Jesus during His last hours on earth. Regardless, the ever-presence of Satan in a physical form throughout the movie is excessive. We see him in the garden of Gethsemane attempting to get Jesus to deny His mission; Satan even sends out a serpent from his person toward the character of Jesus; the character portraying Jesus stands, looks at Satan, and crushes the head of the serpent. Gibson has literalized the metaphor of Genesis 3:15:
and I will put enmity between thee and the woman, and between thy seed and her seed: he shall bruise thy head, and thou shalt bruise his heel.
Satan re-emerges at every major scene: the scourging, during the walk from Jerusalem to Golgotha, and in the crowd at the crucifixion. While we certainly will not deny the possibility of Satan having done such things to Jesus during those final hours, we want to make certain that everyone understands that the Scriptures never speak of Satan doing these things.
- Accessibility of the movie. This is a criticism less of Gibson and his intentions with the movie and more of the Evangelical community who is touting this movie as a great evangelistic tool. This movie presupposes a familiarity with the Gospel accounts of the life of Jesus; there are many quick flashbacks of various episodes in Jesus’ ministry– the Sermon on the Mount, the adulterous woman, washing of the disciples’ feet; the institution of the Lord’s Supper, and many more– and there are no references or such things to be of assistance. The flashback of the adulterous woman, as has been noted above, does not even contain the dialogue that leads up to the conclusion; the statement of Jesus, “let he who is sinless cast the first stone,” is not even said (John 8:7)! It would be very difficult for someone who is unacquainted with the Gospel accounts to understand the flashbacks and many of the events that transpire in the movie.
- Purpose of the movie. This again is less of a criticism of Gibson than those who heavily tout the movie for its evangelical potential. It is evident from the movie that Gibson’s purpose is to show in great detail the suffering and death of Jesus Christ. The physical and mental pain is evident; the psychological suffering is seen throughout. The movie does not speak of the redemptive nature of His death save the quotation of Isaiah 53:5 at the beginning of the film:
But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities; the chastisement of our peace was upon him; and with his stripes we are healed.
The movie is full of the physical suffering but the hope of the redemption to come is not explicitly stated; the glory and power of the resurrection and its fruit for mankind is not stated; the resurrection, in fact, lasts but 12 seconds, and all we see is the naked character of Jesus come out of the tomb. If a viewer of this movie is not already a Christian, this movie will not necessarily make him want to be one in and of itself; it shows only the violence and suffering and leaves out the glory and the redemption. All of that said, the movie would be good for a Christian to see to recognize the pain and suffering our Lord went through on our behalf; for the unbelievers, however, there is merely violence and abuse, and no message of redemption.
What, then, shall we say regarding The Passion of the Christ? As long as Christians enter in to the movie realizing its weaknesses and the theological perspective of its director, I believe that the movie does very well at portraying the suffering of our Lord on our behalf. The Gospel writers move over the scourging and crucifixion of our Lord in one verse each; the pain and suffering that scourging and crucifixion entailed was well-known to the first century audience. We, however, live in a time where anything more than a shot in the arm or a trip to the electric chair is considered a “cruel and unusual punishment;” we only see blood and gore if we see the backroom of a grocery store’s meat department or whatever we see in the movies. The cross has become a cute accessory for our clothing; it has ceased to be a tool of pain and suffering and humiliation. We have become very separated from the suffering of our Lord, and this movie can help us to bridge that gap. This movie is not in and of itself a good witnessing tool since it focuses only on the pain and suffering of Jesus and not the glory and the redemption that resulted; there is no bridge made in the movie for the unbeliever to be able to recognize, as the Jews did on the day of Pentecost, that Jesus suffered and died in this way for the redemption of our sins and that God the Father has made this Jesus Lord and Christ (Acts 2:36). The movie has many, many inaccuracies and contradictions, and these should certainly be noted; if, however, in your walk with Christ you have ever felt it difficult to understand the pain and suffering of our Lord, The Passion of the Christ may certainly give you a better understanding of what our salvation required.